Room 237: Symbolism of the Holocaust in horror movie "The Shining"

Nov 15, 2012

Movie poster for Room 237

Albion history professor Geoffrey Cocks is going to be in a documentary about director Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. The Shining is about a family staying in a haunted hotel, where evil spirits convince the father to murder his wife and son. I know what you’re thinking, what does a history professor have to do with a horror flick?

“I couldn’t avoid thinking about the film after seeing it and I began thinking ‘There are other things in that film,” says Cocks. “Kubrick has not just produced a horror film that isn’t scary in the traditional way, he’s trying to say something about horror films and about human beings who make and watch horror films.”

Cocks says there are symbols of the Holocaust everywhere in the film, starting with the number 42 found on the jersey worn by the son, Danny.

“Is it just a number on a jersey—could have been any number? And one answer to that would be yes, there has to be a number on that type of jersey and that’s the number he chose,” he says. “However, it does fit into a pattern of reference that is meaningful in terms of 42 representing the year 1942.” 

Albion College history professor Dr. Jeffrey Cocks
Credit Albion College

1942 is the year that many Jews were taken to concentration camps during the Holocaust. Cocks says colors in the film get steadily more yellow, like the yellow Star of David that the Nazi’s forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust. As for the German typewriter used by Jack Nicolson’s character Jack Torrence—

“When Jack has his dream of murdering his family, suddenly his typewriter is either painted or it is lighted so that it looks like it’s blue. And it was gray before and now it’s blue. That’s significant because Kubrick uses blue—and light blue in particular—very often as a symbol of high, mighty and obscene power over other human beings,” Cocks says. “It’s a color that he associates with ghosts, but also with power and with murder and with death.”

In the film, there’s a painting of two children standing naked near a fire that hangs in the Torrances’ bedroom. Cocks says this painting, After the Bath by Paul Peel, also appears in another movie about genocide called Ararat. In Ararat, a museum guide is showing the painting to some children, then the scene cuts to a scene of Armenians fighting the Turks during the Armenian genocide.

“After the second world war, if you’re thinking at all and you look at that painting After the Bath and children naked and fires…you can’t help but think—not exclusively of course—of the naked corpses of children in the Holocaust,” he says.

The music in The Shining was produced by composers who opposed Nazi rule in Europe, like Béla Bartók. Kubrick uses one piece by Bartók in the film that Cock says has been called ‘the night music of the 1930s’ by Bartók scholars.

But if Kubrick worked so hard to put this symbolism of the Holocaust into The Shining, why didn’t he just make a film about the Holocaust? Cocks says the answer is: he tried. Kubrick worked on a screenplay for a Holocaust film called The Aryan Papers in the early 90’s but gave up for several reasons.

“Personally, I think he was also uncomfortable in dealing with it,” says Cocks. “His wife told me that during the time that he was working on that screenplay for what was to be called Aryan Papers, he was as depressed as she had ever seen him in their married life together. And he finally just couldn’t do it. So for artistic and personal reasons he didn’t make a Holocaust film, but I think almost inevitably because he couldn’t put it into one film, it crept into other films throughout his career,” Cocks continues. “And especially in The Shining because there have been scholars who argue that horror films may be an appropriate way to deal with the Holocaust because they essentially deal with the same sorts of things. The same sorts of fears we have and the same sorts of realities that often pop up in history in these grotesque, monstrous forms.”

Dr. Geoffrey Cocks is a history professor at Albion College. He’ll show an early screening of the documentary Room 237 Monday night at 7 in the Albion College Bobbit Visual Arts Center.